The Citizen Scientist

Ah, the scientist. Wearer of the lab coat, gatherer of the data, publisher of findings both predictable and extraordinary.

It can be said that the scientist is the person who asks why and where, and analyzes data to come to a conclusion about a natural phenomenon on planet Earth or beyond. What scientists study ranges from biology (someone has to count those pesky invasive Asian carp in the Chicago river!) to physics (which explains why crazy uncle Gerald runs out to New Mexico with his telescope every year!). They are everywhere in our collective minds and media, ranging from Bill Nye to any number of frequent talking heads on a Discovery Channel special.  

Do these individuals need to express an unrivaled passion for a science to participate in the discipline?? Absolutely yes. But does one need a degree in the sciences to help out? Absolutely not.

While STEM leaders are in increasing demands across the spectrum (Glass et al, 2013), the actual gathering and sometimes analysis of scientific data is often done by volunteers. While this is not common in all scientific fields (such as medical research, which often requires advanced degrees and clearance), many that must cope with less funding often need help from interested parties from outside of the traditional lab.

Volunteer biologist with the Surfrider Foundation on the Oregon Coast. Copyright Kristen Vogt Veggeberg, 2018

Enter…the citizen scientist.

Take yours truly as an example. As a citizen scientist, with an oh-so-analytical undergraduate background of Medieval Studies and Anthropology, I have been able to participate in a delightfully wide amount of scientific research for scientists who’ve simply needed hands-on HELP. Throughout my young adulthood, I helped scrape seawood off of anchors off the Oregon Coast, observed and interviewed children learning at the Chicago Children’s Museum, and transcribed battered descriptions of preserved beetles in the Hearst Museum’s collections at UC Berkeley.

I do not do this to get my name on a paper, nor do I do this to hopefully end up on the Discovery Channel (though that would be quite nice!) Like others who’ve followed this path, I do this because it is a passion of mine. Because, for me, a quiet weekend at the beach includes collecting specimens and exploring microbes that I may not have seen before. Just like the topics scientists research, a citizen scientist can make their participation as simple or as complicated as they want.

The Barriers to Success as a Citizen Scientist

Kitten assisting in cleaning of C. Gigas and O. edulis at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. Copyright Kristen Vogt Veggeberg 2018

Wherever there is a need for a large amount of data to be gathered and analyzed, there is a need for outside help. One of the greater challenges that exists for citizen science, however, is the ability for a non-trained participant to be able to quickly and adequately gather data. While in-depth analytical skills and a background in the subject may be necessary for volunteering in capacity in some places, such as large museums or universities, these can also be hard for the average person to apply to hands-on research.

For the citizen scientist, there is also the question of access, ranging from funding to location. While the history of science is filled with the gentleman scholar, funding his own quirky adventure to the Amazon to chase birds or to Egypt to collect archaeological artifacts, the truth is that the average person no longer has the time or the financial means to fund their own scientific adventures. My days of assisting in research at Oregon in my mid-twenties were possible because my AmeriCorps position granted me with a lot of time and incentive to do so. But now, like many of my peers in my age group, I am currently time-poor (if not flat out time-impoverished!) as a working mom and wife who is always trying to carve out a few extra hours for my dissertation and crafting.

Luckily, there are resources for the citizen scientist who can only do a one-time event or so. The Forest Preserves of Cook County is a fantastic resource for this, where volunteers can help research through hiking, taking pictures, and even fishing (http://fpdcc.com/try-volunteering-forest-preserves-2018/). Other opportunities for the interested citizen scientist exist through programs set for the public by other large institutions, such as the Field Museum or Adler Planetarium. Even state and local governments may have opportunities to help in research as a citizen science, such as the your local state Department of Fish and Wildlife, who often need help collecting water samples, staffing natural sites, or catching any number of invasive species and recording the findings. I myself worked with collecting and analyzing salmon spawn numbers in Oregon before starting my doctorate at University of Illinois in 2012.

Biologist, Biologist, Biologist. One of them is a citizen scientist. Take a guess.

Of course, there is the citizen scientist who may not have the ability to run off to either South America or Catherine Chevalier Woods. They would love to help discover new stars and explore the ocean floor for the betterment of our planet, but access or physical issues may prevent them for participating in these daring and interesting adventures. Many in the Chicagoland area may feel this pinch themselves, as it’s not uncommon to juggle multiple jobs, school work, family and friend commitments, as well as the occasional Illinois Science Council adventure on coffee or the science of Rick and Morty.

Does that sound like you? Don’t worry, for people like you, there’s no danger of missing your latest session of “Netflix and chill” in the name of science and discovery. Thanks to Zooinverse, you can binge the latest season of Stranger Things while assisting in scientific data analysis on your laptop!

Zooinverse is an open-sourced online workshop in which participants can register, select a project, and begin work on it. Projects range from analyzing the bottom of sea floors, to hunting antibacterial resistance with the NHS , even helping out with hunting storms!

Want to learn more? Come join us at: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects, register, and get to sciencing with the rest of us citizen scientists!

Sources:

Glass, J. L., Sassler, S., Levitte, Y., & Michelmore, K. M. (2013). What’s so special about STEM? A comparison of women’s retention in STEM and professional occupations. Social forces, 92(2), 723-756.